The Australian National University’s decision to censor an infographic satirising Islam in an online edition of Woroni (the ANU’s newspaper) has had the inadvertent effect of promoting more Islamophobia than the image itself.

The infographic — “Advice from Religion: Islam” (Woroni, Edition 5) — was the fifth in a series by authors Jamie Freestone, Mathew McGann and Todd Cooper. The series has in the past satirised Mormonism, Catholicism, Scientology and Judaism. It features on Woroni’s back page, which exclusively features humorous content, including Agony Aunt letters, comics, and — yes, even at times — nudity.

The ANU Chancelry — the office of the ANU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Young (and other deputy vice chancellors) — threatened disciplinary action against Woroni editors and the authors and demanded that we retract the infographic from the online issue after it received a formal complaint from the International Students Department. The ANU based its decision partly on concerns that the piece would incite a violent response. In a statement to Woroni the Chancelry said:

“[I]n a world of social media, [there is] potential for material such as the article in question to gain attention and traction in the broader world and potentially harm the interests of the University and the University community. This was most clearly demonstrated by the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy … and violent protests in Sydney on September 15 last year.”

This is the first time the ANU has intervened in student media by threatening disciplinary action and calling for retraction of a piece. No other infographics in the “Advice from Religion” series attracted formal complaints.

As a Woroni editor, I didn’t expect the extent of the (somewhat belated) media storm that ensued on Monday, over a week after Woroni initially printed its response to ANU’s handling of formal complaints about the infographic. And I certainly didn’t expect the incident to be co-opted by certain conservative commentators to further their own anti-Islamic agendas. After The Australian first reported on the story in a national platform, News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt claimed the ANU “surrender[ed] freedom to the violent”, and denounced the “threats of violence from religious bigots”.

Woroni and other websites, including Canberra’s RiotACT and blog Reddit, have been inundated with comments. While some comments condemn the ANU’s breach of freedom of speech, others border on anti-Islamic vitriol. Then there are blogs like “Bare N-ked Islam” that picked up the incident, which bear mentioning only to point out the ignorant Islamophobia that they display (“It isn’t Islamophobia when they really are trying kill you”.)

The ANU Chancelry has stood resolutely by its actions; Vice-Chancellor Ian Young told the ABC this week the piece was “both offensive and discriminatory”.Young still maintains that the piece was in breach of the ANU’s code of conduct and the Australian Press Council principles.

Both the ANU Chancelry’s claim that the infographic would provoke Muslims to violence and Bolt’s false statement that there were any “threats of violence” highlight the true nature of Islamophobia: the tired trope that all Muslims will immediately take up arms when they’re upset and/or offended. Despite Bolt’s claim, at no point was there any threat of physical violence by anybody at the ANU to Woroni or the authors in response to the infographic; there were only formal complaints to the Chancelry and letters to the Woroni editors.

There’s an inherent irony in all this. Surely it is more discriminatory to assume that members of a whole religion at a university will respond with violence to the infographic than a satirical infographic itself?

As merely one in a series, the infographic was not intended as anti-Muslim, but anti-theism. “I certainly did not intend to satirise Muslims any more than another religion,” Woroni columnist Mat McGann told Crikey. “Our goal for each article was the same: to question the use of religious beliefs to answer moral questions. We want to satirise all religions and hold them to the same standard.”

The issue at the heart of the incident should be that of censorship, which in the case of the ANU conflicts with the freedom to critique religion (not just Islam, but all religions).

By curbing its student newspaper’s ability to satirise religion and effectively caving in to anti-Islamic stereotypes of angry, violent Muslims, the ANU Chancelry has compromised the University’s role as a facilitator of debate. As the Woroni board maintained in its editorial:

“… by their very nature, universities are forums to critique ideas and beliefs. University newspapers — as a platform for students — should ideally reflect this role.”

*Farz Edraki is outgoing Woroni editor. The views expressed here are hers, and do not represent those of the editorial board.

Peter Fray

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